A winning season in Gainesville is a win for more than just the Florida Gators. It is a win for the hotdog vendor in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. It is a win for the newspapers who sell more copies of their Sunday edition. It is a win for a website like 247Sports who gain more subscribers.
It is a win for you.
And, of course, it is a win for the athletic association – whose job it is to keep the team afloat when a home loss to South Carolina might feel like a regular occurrence.
But is a winning season a win for photographers?
Put simply, yes.
In the ever-restrictive world of college athletics, the sidelines have quickly gone from an open field to a tightly controlled photo op that you might see while covering a politician – designed to represent events in the most favorable light for the Gators.
At the UF College of Journalism and Communications, I am often asked if you can lie through photographs; not the ones you see manipulated on Photoshop. Just plain photographs - right off the camera.
My answer is always yes.
Because at a Gator game, I take thousands of photographs for Gator Bait but only show you, the reader, a handful in galleries and in this magazine.
The photographs are carefully chosen to represent the entire game - both the winning touchdown and the missed catch or bad snap.
So why is a winning season good for the subscribers and fans of the Florida Gators?
Because when there is a winning season, we get more access - more practices become open, more athletes are up for national awards and are profiled because of the success.
You get to find out what video games the Pouncey twins play in their dorm room on campus and what type of scooter they ride to practice. You become more connected to a team that plays for more than a ring at the end of the season - they play for the fans that feel like they know the quarterback just as well as the linemen protecting him.
Media opportunities are rare these days; besides the usual weekly meetings in a conference room that is as about as visually exciting as watching paint dry.
We can reminisce about the days of Tim Tebow until he finally becomes a starting quarterback in the NFL because you got to know him off the field - thanks to ESPN following his every move since high school.
Is this a bad thing for college athletics?
Yes and no.
Yes, because as a photographer the pressure is on to get the perfect shot to tell the best story possible of an athlete’s career. This might not be during a snap of a football but helping a fellow player out a practice or working with a local charity.
No, because these opportunities are often limited for fear that an image might get out that is not flattering toward this week’s hot player, or because the risk of NCAA violations becomes greater, or because it could simply impact the work of the athletes due to the distraction from 20 photographers fighting over the best shot (think of a Black Friday sale at Walmart - just with heavy tripods).
It is a delicate balance covering a football team like the Gators in recent years. For the fans, I’m sure it has been a rollercoaster ride of arguments at your local sports bar - especially last season and even as we get into this year’s bowl season.
When a team goes 0-4 in October, press conferences become more tense and putting a camera in a player’s face after a loss to a rival can be a risky move.
But when a team is 11-1 and in national championship talks - this all becomes a little easier.
As we enter bowl season (‘tis the sea- son to reap the rewards of a long, hardfought
fall), we get the best opportunity to show you the progress of the team you follow. Season wrap-ups are written, players become ineligible, (and often more available to talk) yearbooks and best-of galleries are compiled.
The Sugar Bowl will always be an exciting trip for the Gators and Gator fans.
Not only because it is in the Big Easy, but because it represents a purpose for post-season play.
I’ve covered many bowl games - from the less exciting matchups in the Champs Sports Bowl to the top BCS games fans love to see the Gators play in.
And in those years of eventful and joyless seasons you can see a direct correlation between the record of the team and the excitement covering them.
I can imagine how it must feel to be on the Vanderbilt beat - but I can assure you, when the Commodores toppled Good Ole’ Rocky Top this season it must have been pretty exciting to be at Dudley Field.
So what can we expect next season?
Well, it’s too early to write that story.
But what we can say is to appreciate the good times in The Swamp - even when the student section sits half empty. Because all programs have an unpredictable cycle and right now we (the fans and the media) are about to enjoy a pretty good ride east on I-10 to New Orleans for New Year’s Eve.
The Sideline Report is the newest feature in GatorBait Magazine - a publication dedicated to covering Florida Gator Athletics.